The Priesthood of Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews

Luiz Ruscillo FAITH Magazine May-June 2009

Fr Luiz Ruscillo, Director of Education in Lancaster diocese and parish priest of Hornby and Kirby Lonsdale draws out the very early Church's understanding of Our Lord's priesthood.

Since we have become very familiar with attributing the title 'Priest' to Christ, it may come as a surprise to find that Christ is never explicitly called a priest in any of the books of the New Testament except the Letter to the Hebrews. In the Gospels the term 'priest' always refers to the Old Testament institution of priesthood.[1] The title High Priest is always in a context of opposition to Jesus.[2] In the letters and Revelation Christians are referred to as a 'holy priesthood'[3] but Christ is not said to hold this office. There are a number of places where Christ or His actions are described in sacrificial terms,[4] but the title 'Priest' is never given, and generally these passages emphasise Christ's role as victim more than priest. Whilst other writings, especially the Gospels, implicitly contain some of the relevant themes, it is in the Letter to the Hebrews that Christ is directly identified as a priest.

In order to appreciate the context of the early Christian understanding of priesthood it is necessary to build a picture of the institution of the priesthood at the time of Jesus. The situation in the early first century was the result of centuries of change and development linked to the evolution of the place of the sanctuary in the life of the Jews and the political events which shaped their society. By the time we read of such figures as Annas and Caiphas the role of the High Priest had both a cultic and a political side. Lesser priests such as Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, were part of a highly organised structure in the hierarchy and took their turn in the 'service rotas' supplying the needs of the sanctuary and those who came to offer prayers and sacrifices.


At the beginning, in the time of the Patriarchs, there was no official priesthood. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob offered sacrifices in established sanctuaries and those places where significant events in their relationship with God had taken place. Of course these sanctuaries, and on occasion the priests mentioned, were of foreign nations. It is here that we find mention of the mysterious figure of the priest-king of Salem, Melchizedek (Gen 14,18). The priesthood properly so called did not appear until the social organization of the community had developed. The Old Testament name for priest is kohen, probably taken from Akkadian background.[5]

Israelite priesthood was an office not a vocation. Prophets were chosen by God, and often kings, but the only vocation from God in reference to priests is the choosing of the tribe of Levi.

The most ancient Hebrew term to refer to the investiture of a priest is millu'tm which means literally 'to fill the hand'. This was later translated by the Septuagint as teleiosis, which means 'to perfect' or 'to consecrate'. Every priest was installed to serve a sanctuary and, indeed, the destiny of the priesthood is strictly connected with the development of the

role of the sanctuary. The priest is one who serves and can enter the sanctuary. Gradually there developed a series of 'separations' which was a reflection of the perceived 'otherness' of God, who is 'Holy', and the 'profaneness' of the people. In this graduality of separation we see that first the people are set apart, then a tribe, Levi, and the men of that tribe who are priests. A day is set aside, the Sabbath, then the holy days of the feasts and then the great feast, the Day of Atonement. Furthermore, a particular place is set aside, the Tent, which only the priests can enter. Even here there is further separation of the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest can enter and only once a year. The sacrifices are made because the priest cannot effect the necessary transcendingseparation himself. He therefore offers a chosen animal which is immolated. It is a gesture of reaching up to God where man cannot reach. When the sacrifice was accepted there was a descending movement of blessing through the priest to the people he represented. The main function of the priest is seen to be one of mediation. The institution of the priesthood looks towards communion with God. The priests' union with humanity was clearly understood and accepted as fact in the OT This is why they needed so many stages of separation to be raised to the sacred level. The problem was achieving a level of holiness acceptable to God.

Other important roles of the priest are linked to oracles and teaching the Law. The priest consulted God (eg. Dt 33,8-10), often through the use of the mysterious urim and thummim, 'casting-lots' carried in the ephod, a pouch worn on the breastplate of the priest. As a result, the priest was able to communicate divine oracles. The Torah was also the realm of the priest. Just as the virtue of judgement belonged to the king, vision to the prophet and wisdom to the sage, so the teaching of the Torah belonged to the priest (Micah 3,11).

It may seem strange, but it is in this context that the priest had the role of arbitrator with regard to leprosy. The decision involved the judgement from God in the realm of ritual purity. The priest had competence in both these areas.

The place of the priest in the sacrifices was not so prominent at the beginning of this development. The one making the offering killed the victim. The role of the priest was to bring the blood, the holiest part of the offering, to the altar. It was the element of approaching the altar which required the priestly office because he was the one who was ritually clean and prepared. The sacrifices of the priest were to effect ritual separation and so to serve mediation. The function of sacrifice underwent great development over the centuries to become one of the priest's principal roles.

All of these functions of the priest have a common basis. When he delivered an oracle or expounded a teaching of the Torah the priest was passing on an instruction which came from God. When he brought blood to the altar or burnt incense he was presenting to God the petitions of the faithful. In all these actions the priest was the mediator, either representing God before men or men before God. It could be described as having an ascending and descending dynamic. The priest was the instrument who carried the appeals and entreaties of the people. He was set aside to be ritually pure so that he could approach God on their behalf. This is the 'ascending' role. In turn he 'descended' with God's oracle and judgement for the people. He was the instrument through which the people were blessed byGod. We see a clear instance of this in Aaron's formula of blessing (Num 6,22-27). Interestingly, there was also a formula for a curse pronounced by the sons of Levi (Dt 27,14-26). The priesthood is an institution of mediation.[6]

In the ancient near east many professions were hereditary. This also suited ancient Israelite priesthood. The tribe of Levi, and specifically the descendents of Aaron, were set apart to perform sacred functions. They were maintained in ritual purity so that they could properly fulfil their role and serve in the holy place.


In the time of the Exodus and the passage through the desert the Tent of Meeting was erected whenever the people of Israel pitched camp. It housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Altar. The presence of God revealed itself with the descent of the cloud, the Shekinah. Moses spoke with God inside the cloud (Ex 33,9; Num 12,4-10). When the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan they established a number of sanctuaries. Over the centuries, beginning with King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Sam 6), there was a progressive centralization. The many sanctuaries scattered throughout the country were gradually abandoned for the sake of Bethel and Jerusalem, and finally Jerusalem alone. The Temple of Jerusalem stood as the unique place of God's presence and the place ofsacrifice.

As a consequence, the number of 'Levites' needed for priestly service diminished. It is thought that those descended from Aaron maintained a privileged position and certainly those who served Jerusalem preserved their role. But many 'Levites' were no longer needed as priests. A distinction arose between those called 'priests' and those called 'Levites'. The 'Levites' were, in effect, decommissioned, though they always held the privilege of being able to offer their own sacrifice when they went to the Temple. There still remained great numbers of priests serving the Temple in Jerusalem and they were organised into hierarchies and rotas. Zechariah was a member of this band (Lk 1,5.8).

By the time of Jesus, of course, the Temple in Jerusalem was the only place where sacrifice could be offered. It was considered to be the exclusive place of God's dwelling. Synagogues, of which there were many, were not built for sacrifice. The synagogues were places of prayer, reading the Law and instruction. It is not known when they first came into existence but it is thought that they originated in the time of

the exile. They spread throughout Palestine and the Diaspora and were in Jerusalem itself during the existence of the Temple.

The High Priestly Office

After the exile in Babylon and the reconstruction of the Temple the priesthood was re-established and re-organised. The title of High Priest was still very rare but, with the place of the King seriously diminished by the weak political position of an effectively occupied country and, on occasion, 'puppet' kingship, the head of the priesthood became ever more powerful. Once the monarchy had to all intents and purposes disappeared the High Priest came to the fore as the head of the nation. Only now does the term High Priest become common. It had developed into a powerfully political position as well as having the cultic role. At the time of Jesus it attracted all the human failings related to ambition, power and riches.

The line of Zadok, which claimed to trace its genealogy all the way back to Zadok the priest who died during Solomon's reign, and who in turn traced his origins back to Aaron, was displaced for power-political reasons by the Greek Seleucids. This foreign intervention eventually sparked the Maccabean revolt in 167BC which was the origin of the Hasmonean dynasty of High Priest political leaders which survived until the Romans intervened with the appointment of King Herod the Great (37-4BC). By the time Jesus began His public ministry there was a carefully balanced political situation of parallel leaders. The descendents of Herod were weak but still in place. The Romans had imposed a procurator. Meanwhile, the Jews considered their true leaders to be the High Priests. Yet the office was atthe disposal of the sovereign who could appoint or dismiss at will. This resulted in the anomalous situation of there being two High Priests at the time of Jesus' trial, Annas, the deposed High Priest, and Caiphas, the ruling High Priest.

The Altar

The Altar in the Temple was the sign of God's presence. It was never considered to be a table. Unlike the gods of the pagans, God did not need to be fed. It was in fact the place for sacrifice and offering. In later times it was purified once a year on the Day of Atonement and was held to have an exceptional holiness. It can best be described as an instrument of mediation. The offerings of men were placed upon it and burnt. By this ceremony, the offerings were taken out of man's domain and given to God. God replied by bestowing blessings. The Covenant between God and His people was re-established or maintained upon the altar of sacrifice.


The altar was the place of sacrifice and sacrifice was the principal act in Israel's cult. Sacrifice could loosely be described as any offering of animal or vegetable which is wholly or partially destroyed upon the altar as a token of homage to God. There were many different kinds of sacrifice and many different terms to denote them. Holocausts, communion sacrifices, expiatory sacrifices, vegetable offerings, shewbread and offerings of incense were the main categories. Sacrifice was also understood on many different levels and had many different motives. A sacrifice was essentially an act of external worship. It was a symbolic action which expressed both the interior feelings of the one offering and God's response to the prayer. By these rites the gift made to God is accepted,union with God is achieved, and the guilt of man is taken away. But the effect of the sacrifice is not magic. The external action must express the true inward feelings of man. If this is not the case the sacrificial action is an empty expression and impotent.[7] The perennial importance of internal disposition became ultimate and most pure in the priesthood of Christ.

It is not possible to go into details concerning the specific origins, rites, motives and meanings of all the categories of sacrifices of Israel. But one needs to be mentioned; the Day of Atonement. The origins of this feast and its provenance are disputed. By the time of Jesus it was of such importance that it was simply described as The Day. The High Priest sacrificed a bull for his own sinfulness and that of his 'house', the line of Aaron. He carried the blood behind the veil into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood upon the mercy seat. Two goats were brought by the people and lots cast. According to the lots, one goat was sacrificed for the sins of the people. The priest took the blood behind the veil to sprinkle the mercy seat as he had before with the blood of the Bull. Then,in the presence of God, he laid his hands on the other goat to transfer to it the sins of the people. This goat was taken into the desert. It was God who brought about the transferral of the sins and the expiation of them from the people. Only on this day did anyone go behind the veil into the Holy of Holies. Moreover, it was the exclusive preserve of the High Priest.


The thrust of the Letter to the Hebrews is to show that Christ is the supreme High Priest in relation to whom all previous priests and priestly institutions are figures and preparations.

The structure of Hebrews shows clearly that it is not a letter, but more likely a lecture or discourse. At the end, chapter 13, it changes into the style of a letter. It is conjectured that it is a sermon which has been copied and sent, with a short accompanying note at the end, to the readers.[8] There is no way of knowing who the original author is. Due to the content of the main body of the work it has been suggested that its readers would be intended to be Jewish Christians but this hypothesis cannot be shown conclusively. Neither can we be certain of the date of its origin. It is before the death of Timothy since he gets a mention (13,23) and it was known by Clement of Rome.[9] We cannot tellwhether it was written before the destruction of the Temple in AD70 since its references are to Old Testament Temple liturgy and not specifically to that of the Herodian Temple. It states that the old Covenant is passing away (8,13) but it is not clear whether this means that its rites were still in operation or recently brought to a halt. Any date between 67AD and 90AD is thought possible.

The Central Point of the Discourse[10]

It is in chapters 8 and 9 that we find the high point of the whole discourse. The author writes in 8,1 that the kephalion, the 'head' or 'essence', of the discourse is the type or class of High Priest that we have in Christ. The author then goes on to describe the High Priest's place, his ministry, his sacrifice and the Covenant which results. These two chapters build on much that has gone before in the letter, so in looking at them in detail it will be necessary to refer back to some previous arguments.

The author contrasts what has gone before in the old Covenant and ritual with what is accomplished by Christ by considering in turn:

[A] The level of OT worship (8,1 -6)
[B] The Old Covenant (8,7-13)
[C] A description of OT worship (9,1 -10)

This is followed by:
[C'] A description of Christ's worship (9,11 -14)
[B'] The New Covenant (9,15-23)
[A'] The new and final level of worship (9,24-28).

[A] 8,1 -6: The level of OT worship. What the author argues here is that the Tent built by Moses, although it was completed according to the pattern and command of God, is necessarily established by man, not God (8,2.5b). It is, therefore a 'model or reflection' only of the divine realities (8,5a). It is an imperfect copy and on a lower plane[11] which is now surpassed and to be left behind. The author argues to this position by using the texts of the OT itself.[12]

[B] 8,7-13: The Old Covenant. By means of an extensive quotation from Jeremiah (Jer 31,31-34) the author, again using the OT itself, argues that the Old Covenant was defective and is now surpassed.

[C] 9,1-10: OT worship. Once again, using descriptions found in the OT, the author argues that it was not only the old Covenant that was defective, but the whole of the ancient cult was ineffective. He describes the Tent with its two compartments and their furnishings. Then he describes the cultic action which is clearly taken from the liturgy for the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). That the outer compartment remains after the sacrifice and that the High Priest can still only enter once a year into the Holy of Holies, according to the text of the OT itself, indicates to the author that even this, the highest instance of the OT cult, does not effect an inner transformation to perfection. These 'regulations of the flesh' are only until 'the reform is imposed' (9,10).

So the author proceeds to show how Christ brings about a definitive reform of the Tent or Sanctuary and the worship. In so doing, Christ establishes the New Covenant and a level of worship which is in effect the blessing of eternal communion with God.

[C'] 9,11-14: Christ's worship. Christ the High Priest has passed through the 'more perfect tent' and entered the 'holy place' carrying with Him 'His own blood' (9,11-12). The purpose of the previous 'outer compartment of the tent' was to enable human beings to be prepared and be given a means to enter the divine sanctuary. The whole organization of priestly worship was based on the idea that it was necessary to be holy in order to approach God. This was understood as passing from the profane level of human life through a transformation which raised the human being to the sacred level, into a relationship with God who is Holy. The OT solution to this problem was to have a series of ritual separations as has been described above.

Christ, to be the perfect High Priest, must be able to mediate between God and humanity. This is the concern of the early section of the work: 1,5 - 2,18. The first part, 1,5 - 2,4 establishes that Christ is the Son of God. The second part, 2,5-18 describes how He is brother to mankind.

2,17 describes Christ as a High Priest of God's religion who is 'compassionate and trustworthy'. That Christ is 'trustworthy' is explained in 3,1-6. It is a greater trustworthiness even than Moses because Christ is trustworthy as a Son. Thus His closeness to God is accepted.

That Christ is 'compassionate' is explained in 4,15-5,10 which emphasises that He is one with mankind.

Yet this mediation as High Priest is not summed up by having, as it were, a foot in both camps. The mediation is dynamic and established through the offering by Christ of His very self in the passion and resurrection. Christ becomes the High Priest through the priestly action of offering sacrifice and the acceptance by God of the sacrifice. This is described in 5,5-10.

5,5-6: Christ is humble towards priesthood and is declared High Priest by God. There is a parallel here with Phil 2,6-8. The 'emptying' is present and the subsequent 'raising high', though in this case it is to the High Priestly office. The key is that the office is a consequence of Christ not glorifying himself through personal ambition, but suffering. This is clear from the verses which immediately follow.

5,7-8: Christ offers prayer and entreaty. The word used to express offering is one which is used in contexts of sacrifice, prosenegkas. The references to loud cries, tears and death evoke the passion. It is as if we are hearing a commentary on the agony in the garden and the cross. In the same verse we read that His prayer is heard. The offering as sacrifice is given a holy quality by the attitude which accompanies its giving. We read that it is on account of His reverence and holy piety (eulabeia) (5.8) that He is heard. For this reason His offering is accepted. Evidently this does not mean that He was preserved from the agony of the passion and the death on the cross. If the offering refers to the passion, endured with holypiety, then the hearing can only refer to the acceptance which was expressed in the resurrection. This presumes that the offering is acceptable and accepted. We read that, although being Son, He learnt obedience through suffering.

It is not that the Son at some time or other did not obey and had to learn the lesson. The author of the Hebrews has already emphasised that our High Priest is without sin (4,15). Yet the nature that Christ shares with us (2,11) is wracked by disobedience and in His suffering, human nature learns obedience and in turn is perfected.

5,9-10: These verses confirm that the offering is accepted. He is made perfect. This is how Christ becomes the source of eternal life and is acclaimed as High Priest of the order of Melchizedek. The key term is teleiotheis. The word, strictly translated, means to make perfect. In the Septuagint this term is used almost exclusively in Exodus and Leviticus and refers to the consecration or 'sacrifice of investiture of a priest'. The sacrifice described in 5,7-8 is accepted as a sacrifice of priestly investiture. Christ, having given Himself in sacrifice, is consecrated through being heard and accepted.

We notice a radical change from the OT priesthood. In the OT priesthood the sacrifices are made because of the weakness of the priests and their need to be raised towards God. With Christ, acceptance of the weakness and the closest possible association with humanity is itself the sacrifice. He is now the source of salvation 'for all who obey Him'. This is in accord with that aspect of priesthood in which the priest is the mediator of the word of God through oracle and teaching the Torah. The people of the old Covenant required the mediation of the priest to communicate God's judgement and will to them. That role now belongs to Christ.

He is proclaimed as High Priest of the order of Melchizedek. As we read in chapter 7, the particular reference here is to the prophecy of Ps 110,4 which is seen to be fulfilled in Christ. His priesthood does not depend on human genealogy like that of the members of the tribe of Levi. Melchizedek, who is without ancestry, is presented as a figure of Christ. But here the emphasis is not on the eternal pre-existence of the Son. It is the result of sacrifice that the priesthood of Christ is established. As Son and as risen humanity He is priest for ever. His sacrifice is sufficient for ever. As mediator, it is not only that He is truly Son of God and truly incarnate. His humanity has been internally transformed through the sacrifice, so that it was perfected, and through thisconsecration He has become a High Priest without peer. 'How much more effectively [than the OT sacrifices of goats and bulls] the blood of Christ, who offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice to God through the eternal Spirit, can purify our inner self from dead actions so that we do our service to the living God.'(9,14)

[B'] 9,15-22: The New Covenant. Since there is a new priesthood established in Christ so there is a new Covenant. The new priesthood is established by His sacrifice. In 9,12 this is described as Christ entering the sanctuary carrying His own blood. The only other place in the NT where we find the terms blood and covenant linked together is in the accounts of the institution of the Eucharist. It is here that the references to Christ as 'sacrifice', 'passover' and 'lamb' find their place.

A covenant between God and the people is inevitably unequal. It was always initiated through God's free gift and intervention. It also required blood for two reasons. Blood was seen as necessary for purification,[13] without which man could not approach God. Also, to enter into a covenant at God's invitation required an irreversible event from the side of the people. This could only be through death and the shedding of blood.[14]

9,15-22 introduces a further element through the use of the field of meanings of a single word: diatheke. This technical term can mean covenant and/or testament (in reference to an inheritance, a will). Christ's death is seen to link these three elements. It is an expiation for the purification of sins, it establishes the new covenant and it inaugurates a new inheritance. This one act of Christ abolishes the obstacle of sin which prevented the establishment of a genuine covenant. It introduces humanity into a definitive communion with God through perfect mediation. It furthermore reveals the original plan of God for mankind as an inheritance promised but only now fulfilled.

[A'] 9,23-28: The new level of Worship. The result of this sacrifice, offered and accepted, is a new 'Tent' or Sanctuary. It is not one which is man-made or only modelled on the real one (9,24), as in the past. This is the definitive Sanctuary of God. We recall that in the description of the OT sanctuary there are two compartments. The first was a place of preparation and the second was the Holy of Holies. Both of these sections were mere figures which had to disappear. With the coming of Christ and His perfect sacrifice they are abolished.

Here we see a direct link with a tradition also in the Gospels. The resurrection is connected with the destruction and the raising up of the Temple. In Jn 2 it is made explicit (Jn 2,21 -22). In Mt and Mk the destruction is connected to the glorification of Christ who is set at God's right hand (Mt 26,61.64; Mk 14,58.62). After the death and resurrection of Christ there is no longer need for the 'Tent' or sanctuary because Christ's risen body has taken its place. He has entered into the very presence of God in eternal and definitive communion. It is through His dead and resurrected human body that the faithful can now enter. Jean Galot develops this interestingly to argue that the erection of this new temple implies a new priesthood.[15]

A Perfect Fulfilment

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to emphasise in the following chapters that the sacrifice of Christ is superior to all the previous sacrifices and surpasses them. This is not intended to be a symbolic or poetic development but one which understands its real effects in the very being of man through its transforming power. Vanhoye says:

'One must be careful not to say that the author of the epistle is using "metaphors" when he applies the title of high priest to Christ and the name of "sacrifice" to his

glorifying passion. His viewpoint is exactly the opposite: it is in the Old Testament that priesthood and sacrifice were taken in the metaphorical sense, as they are there applied to an impotent and symbolic figuration, while in the mystery of Christ these words have at last obtained their real meaning, with an unsurpassable completeness.'[16]

The early Christians did not identify Christ with the priests or high priests of their time. Christ's priesthood has moved into a radically new sphere. It leaves behind the juridical power of the high priestly families in the humility of Christ. Furthermore, and much more importantly, it so far surpasses the cultic role of the Old Testament priests that it abolishes that institution completely. Or better, it brings it to fulfilment. This new Priest is not merely an instrument of the oracle of God, He is not merely the vehicle through which God's will is expressed, He is not merely the channel for the blessings of God. Neither is He the man who has undergone ever greater rites of separation through purification in order to come into the presence of the Holy One. In His risen body He is GodHimself, law-giver and origin of all blessings and at the same time the truly internally transformed humanity. This level of mediation was impossible in the old dispensation. It is achieved by His one perfect sacrifice through the dynamic of the passion-offering and resurrection-acceptance.

It is not only the priesthood which is abolished through Christ's sacrifice. The Temple is brought to an end and a new and everlasting covenant inaugurated. The risen body of Christ is the new Temple and the New Covenant. The worship of Christ replaces all other rituals.

Christ is the supreme mediatorial priest because he is the Son of God whose offering to God the Father, through his whole life and death has, in his Resurrection and Ascension, been accepted.

[1]Mt 8,4; 12,4.5; Mk 1,44; 2,26; Lk 1,5; 5,14; 6,4; 10,31; 17,14; Jn 1,19.

[2]There are so many references that they are too numerous to list here.

[3]1 Pet 2,5.9; Rev 1,6; 5,10; 20,6.

[4]'Christ our Passover' in 1 Cor 5,7; 'Jesus Christ appointed by God as propitiatory sacrifice' in Rom 3,25; Jesus Christ is a 'propitiation for sins' in ljn 2,2; 4,10; 'The ransom was paid.. .in the precious blood of the lamb' in 1 Pet 118-20; 'Christ gave himself up for me/us' in Gal 2,20 and Eph 5,2. Also the passage which includes, 'through His wounds you have been healed' in 1 Pet 2,21 -24.

[5]Much of the following is taken from the two great reference works in this field: Ancient Israel: Its Life and institutions, R. de Vaux, DLT 1961; Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, J Jeremias, SCM 1969.

[6]R de Vaux, op. cit, p 357.

[7]Amos 4-5 is one instance of many in the prophets where the people are chastised
for offering sacrifices in action alone without the necessary internal disposition.

[8]This is a widely held opinion among many scholars.

[9]There are strong points of contact between 1 Clem and Hebrews.

[10]Much of the exegesis which follows is taken from Old Testament Priests and the New Priest, A. Vanhoye, St Bede's Publications, 1986.

[11] There is a similar argument with regard to the Law in Galatians. The OT has value as an imitation and model of a divine reality but is now surpassed; Gal 4,1 -11.

[12]Ex 25,40

[13]There are innumerable references throughout Leviticus.

14Ex 24,3-8 expresses the irreversible event in the sacrifices, and the purification in the sprinkling.

[15]Theology of the Priesthood, Jean Galot (Ignatius Press, 1985),

[16] Old Testament Priests and the New Priest, A. Vanhoye, St Bede's Publications, 1986, p 208.

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